(Note: This is a re-post from a few years back, but I think still pretty relevant for today.)
When we witness horrific violence, we naturally seek for answers in the background of the individual, we search for their motivation. We do this as a natural reaction to protect ourselves.
We want to convince ourselves that there was something specific in their lives that makes them different from us. “Oh, that it explains it,” we might say, “they had a horrific childhood,” or “they came from a ______ background.” We feel relieved, why? Because we’re not like that, we had a good childhood, didn’t come from ______ background. We can’t be like them.
When the horrific acts occurred on 9/11, the press, social media, and even ourselves, we immediately focused on how different they were from us. How they were born in another country, raised in another culture, perhaps from another religion, ah, they aren’t like us.
I would encourage the opposite. Look for our similarities. Look for how much we are just like them. Look for how many traits of their humanity we also have. The most powerful step towards decreasing violence is to acknowledge our capacity for violence. The most powerful step towards increasing compassion and love is to acknowledge our capacity for love and compassion.
Each one of us is capable of hate. If we can hate we have anger. Our anger can turn to violence. Small violence, perhaps to ourselves and then in subtle ways to others. All human beings are capable of violence towards another. If we deny that, we are denying our own humanity and are delusional. When we see violence, we must see it not as some separate self, as some other hideous being that we could never become or never be. Rather we should see it for being a part of us.
We must accept that it is possible for each of us to engage in violence, as unimaginable as our conscious mind would tell us it is. This does not condone or accept the violence. It does not dismiss or diminish it, rather it lets us see into the deeper truth that within each of is an unimaginable capacity for violence and if that is true, it also means that within each of us is an unimaginable capacity for peace and forgiveness.
We see horrific violence and think, “I could never do that.” We see great acts of compassion and think, “I could never do that.” Neither statement is true. The first step towards acting with great compassion is to acknowledge that hate, anger and violence do not spring from some separate self, they are wholly and completely a part of us. Love, compassion, and forgiveness, these are also wholly and completely our self.
When I was growing up in Sunday school, I used to hear a story about how each of us has two dogs fighting inside of us, a white dog and a black dog and whichever dog we choose to feed will become the strongest. Of course, the moral of that lesson was to feed the white dog (goodness) and starve the black dog (evil).
But I’m now convinced that this simple analogy is dangerously incorrect. I can no more starve one dog than it is healthy to lose weight by chopping off a hand. Both “goodness” and “evil” are a part of me, anger and love are intrinsic to my very nature. My choice is to give compassion to my anger. My choice is to show goodness to my “evil”.
Instead of looking for what separates us from those that commit violence, look at who we are. We can choose as individuals to not engage in violence and to show compassion. But it is a choice. We can never know great joy if great sorrow did not also exist. We cannot see someone serving with great compassion, if we cannot contrast that to someone using violence. Compassion is a choice.